The Cancun airport is a slick, cavernous affair, a holding space for burnt tourists and nut-brown sorority girls. The marble floors are littered with blonde, corn-rowed girls propped against their boyfriends, sleeping away the layovers between their college campuses and the exotic locales where they’ve been vacationing. The ticket desk for flights to Havana is in a corner, next to a closet-sized liquor store, and there is no one in line. The two men who run the desk examine my passport companionably. I have just joined my group and am not on the list of religious visas our government has issued for travel to Cuba. The men’s faces are expressionless. “I have a letter,” I begin, pulling a piece of paper out of my wallet. The men light up at the sight of the folded wad. One puts his hands in the air. “Ah!” he says, and turns to issue my ticket. “Yes.”
I am with 15 people from the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, on what we are calling a “work trip.” Members of our church have worked on projects in Belize and Guatemala, building churches and schools and working in the communities. We are hoping to establish similar connections with churches in Cuba. I was on the first trip we made, a year ago; as the guests of a Baptist church in Matanzas, we toured hospitals and schools and saw the ocean. We’re here for two weeks this time; we have made rough plans with contacts from the Baptist and Presbyterian churches to work on a few local projects. We are not exactly sure what this might entail. We have brought work pants, old T-shirts and sturdy shoes.
In the Havana airport, we stand in line and slide our passports into fluorescent-lit cubicles to serious men in drab uniforms. The airport is new and quite beautiful. Light shines off the polished floors. Customs here is impassive and efficient. We tell them we are going to stay in a hotel in Matanzas, a lie; we’ve been told it might create problems to tell the truth, that we are being put up in a dormitory at the Baptist church. We are paying our hosts in American dollars to cover expenses, and though it is not unusual for Cuban churches to host foreign visitors, like most non-government forms of commerce, this seems to be kept covert. The customs official gives several of my documents an emphatic stamping. I believe I recognize him from last time.
We step out of the air conditioning into a thick and balmy night. For a capital, the city is surprisingly hushed: The parking lot is empty, and the highway is still. A man bikes past, holding a shirt on a hanger aloft in one hand. Behind us, the lights of the airport go suddenly out, and darkness overturns on us, a silent, velvet bowl.
Our group has at its disposal an old yellow school bus and its two drivers, Otoniel and Rolando, who have bid with the church for the job of driving us around. They take us first to Santa Clara, a fair-sized town in the middle of the island, to work for a few days. It takes two to drive a bus in town: one to throw the bus decisively into a turn and one to stand in the stairwell and watch the corner clear the buildings by inches. In the country, the road is a wide one-lane; we weave at a good clip in and out of a variety of traffic.
I have read that Cuba has 38 motor vehicles for every 1,000 people. On these roads, most people ride on bicycles imported from China or on motorbikes–Russian–or in carts and carriages of their own construction. There are few stop signs and little stopping. Our drivers honk steadily, but solicitously, announcing our progress to the motley procession in our path. And each time, at the last possible moment, the procession opens, the travelers shift indifferently, and we pass at an impossibly narrow breadth, ruffling their hair, bleating our arrival: Here we come. You on the bike, leading your horse at a canter. You two on the motorbike, with a hog upside-down between you. You there, shirtless in the road, bent over the median with a machete, trimming the grass in wide swipes. You, elderly gentleman on a three-wheeled pedal cart, your wife in tow in a wheeled chair. We’re right behind you. Here we come.
We are staying in a campamento, a collection of dorms and buildings a few miles from Santa Clara, run by a Presbyterian church in town. (We have contacts with Baptist and Presbyterian churches in several towns, and are passed more or less gracefully between hosts throughout the trip.) Otoniel eases the bus delicately between the red gates at the entrance. A man in a stiff straw hat taps the hindquarters of two oxen ambling down the road behind us. Our first meal is grilled fish, which is hard to come by; the fishing industry is heavily regulated, and most of the fish is reserved for turismo, for restaurants and hotels. We saw it caught this morning, our host says, and holds up two fish from the freezer, fat snapper, in a frozen arch. The oven in the kitchen is as long as a sofa and wood-fed. One of the cooks shows me the fire in the middle, a feverish white blaze, into which they tuck logs at all hours. Our beds in the dormitory are bunks slung low as hammocks, the rough sheets smelling of soap.
We will be working on a finca, a narrow little ranch on the outskirts of town, owned by the local Presbyterian church. There are a couple of houses and a small school on the property, as well as a few fields being cultivated for crops. Our job is to weed a yucca field. We use hoes that they provide; the heads are brand new, perhaps bought for us, the handles have been cut here, from a local tree called the guasime. The wood is light and hard, and the trees are sturdy. During the revolution, people were hanged from them. Find me a guasime tree, people joke, when things get bad.
In limited allotments, hoeing is not difficult work, but it is labor, and the sun is hot. The soil, though full of rocks, is dark and sweet, and the weeds come up easily. We are instructed by a man who lives and works on the finca with his family. He is working in a worn pair of men’s dress shoes with no socks, and a loose-collared shirt. He sweats only a little. At the end of the morning, he pours the dust out of his shoes. On the bus, later, with our drivers, the conversation turns to shoes. Because of the shortage of materials, shoes made domestically these days are of dismal quality, and very expensive. At $20 or $30 a pair, they can cost a month’s wages, and there is no guarantee of quality. Otoniel’s friend bought his wife a pair for a wedding present, and they fell apart on the third wearing. Another man, he says, bought a pair that broke on the walk home.
Our second day on the finca, Manolo, the pastor of the Baptist church in Santa Clara, asks if we would like to send an e-mail to anyone at home. While Internet access is too expensive to have on a regular basis, he can take a few minutes online to send our letters from the phone connection in one of the houses. We tap our messages on a keyboard jaundiced with age. The screen undulates gently, and the words are indistinct, as though underwater. A bumper crop of chicks mills around outside the doorway. On our way out, we thank the occupants of the house, who have been waiting in the yard for us to finish. One, a tiny, wiry woman, holds a fat, naked baby, her grandchild. How old is he? He is two months old. What is his name? She grins and watches us. His name is Elian. There is a pause, and everyone laughs out loud.
It is a strange thing being an American in Cuba, strange for its easiness, its novelty. No one expects us. The question, when I begin to speak my foreigner’s Spanish, is always the same: De donde es? Where are you from? Guess, I say, and no one ever does. It is impossible, of course, in the United States, to draw any realistic impressions of what life might be like here, but I have been a foreigner in many places, and this is different.
Everyone talks to us, curious, amused, interested. People are faintly surprised at our questions and then greatly concerned that we understand their answers. We make blunt, ignorant inquiries about everything we can think of: religion, family, government, money. We walk into businesses and factories and talk to the workers, we talk to strangers on the street. People oblige us unselfconsciously, with elaborate examples, personal anecdotes, the ubiquitous Cuban axiom. They ask us what we think about Cuba, rocking forward slightly, heads cocked. There is, in each exchange, surprise and relief, as at a reconciliation of the estranged, and an urgency, as though time were short. Our bus drivers lean over and explain things to us, shouting above the engine, as we drive along.
On the morning we leave the campamento, Manolo calls my name after breakfast. Some of us have gotten replies to the e-mails we sent. But there is no printer, and Manolo has copied the messages down by hand, letter for letter, in his notebook. I stand in a light drizzle and read, in a careful script, my boyfriend’s account of driving home from Georgia late at night, in the midsummer heat, in his underwear.
We are heading to Matanzas, a port city on the north side of the island, 75 kilometers east of Havana, to paint a special-education elementary school. Matanzas is segmented lengthwise by two rivers, which empty into the Bay of Matanzas. Matanzas means “killings”; the city got its name when a shipload of Spaniards was sunk in the middle of the bay. The school we are working at is a 20-minute walk from the church dormitory where we are staying, across one of the rivers. The closest pedestrian crossing is at the mouth of the river, over an old railroad bridge which once rotated to allow ships in from the bay. Now rusted in place, the bridge has sizable gaps in the wooden spacers, through which the sun gleams off the green water 20 feet below. It is the only route across the river this end of town, and there is always a steady foot traffic in both directions. People cross slowly but unconcernedly, those on the more solid parts giving a hand to those crossing loose or vacant sections. I hold onto the side and take a woman’s hand as she is passed to me by her boyfriend. I am glad to see that we are both laughing in mild disbelief.
There is little in Cuba that is where it was originally meant to be: Used clothes are spread out on counters in old pharmacies, fruit and canned milk line the hardwood shelves of old department stores. The school we are working at, Franco Gomez, is in what was obviously an old, grand home, with an enormous center courtyard and rooms in a horseshoe around it. There are marks in the floor of the courtyard where fountains used to be. The rooms have 20-foot ceilings and bright, intricately tiled floors. We inquire about a ladder, and the teachers exchange glances. While sugar cane is still Cuba’s largest industry, tourism is being groomed to replace it, and construction supplies of all kinds, reserved for the burgeoning “smokeless industry,” are in painfully short supply, forbidden for personal purchase. Plaster is falling in large chunks from the walls in many of these rooms. There are a few lights and fans, turned on by live wires touched together.
There is money in Cuba, but it is elusive and undependable, a watered-down fuel on which only a few engines run. Commerce is far more complicated, less certain than we are used to, and it takes us a long time to translate from our native capitalism. We have sent money ahead of time to buy paint for the school, but we arrive on our first morning with none anywhere to be found. One of the church administrators, we are told, has driven to a town an hour and a half away to buy some. He returns with a few small cans, enough for one or two doors. One of our group goes to a store with a couple of our hosts; here there is paint, but though it is only 4:30 p.m., the proprietor is closing the store and refuses to sell it to us. Otoniel tells us, “If you gave me $100 [an enormous sum] I couldn’t find paint in one day in Cuba.” Time does not equal money; time doesn’t equal anything except time. In a government-controlled economy, the profit from a can of paint won’t change a store-owner’s wage, and he’d rather just go home.
In fact, with a triple economy, money doesn’t even equal money: There are three active currencies in Cuba: the old peso, worth about a nickel, the American dollar, and the new peso, recently minted, equal to an American dollar. As the strongest of the three, American dollars hold the most power. Our hosts tell us that only about a fifth of the population make their money in dollars, through tourism-related jobs and other contact with foreigners. Though most incomes are still in pesos, more and more stores are opening which take only dollars, a situation which is creating the beginnings of class divisions. Sodas at these places are 50 cents or so; we pile off the bus in the midday heat and buy two dozen, and people stand outside and watch us. It’s at one of these dollar stores that we resolve the paint problem, buying huge bucketsful from a sparkling new construction supply store, at American prices. We also buy electrical supplies. Otoniel and another man in our group, Jim, are electricians, and have been eyeing the ratted wiring with a hungry look.
When we finally get the paint, we work all day. The sun moves into the courtyard, whitens it, and it becomes achingly hot. The day takes on a feverish intensity. Unexpectedly, happily, someone delivers a ladder, a solid-steel behemoth that takes two men to carry it. The teachers, who have been watching us sweetly and amusedly, mostly trying to keep the children out of our way, begin to think something might actually get done.
We paint the walls in the courtyard, the walls in the largest classroom. Otoniel and Jim begin to screw switchplates onto the bare ends of wires. Rolando takes a can of red oil paint and climbs up the ladder to paint the gutters. We paint latex on the walls. We thin the oil paint with gasoline from a soda bottle. We sluice water through the courtyard to keep the paint from drying on the tiles, and splash around in our bare feet. The gutter in front of the school runs white with our water. There are enough brushes to go around; teachers are up on tables in the classrooms. We are spattered with paint. I work on a door with a teacher with a fine net of white in her perfectly done hair. One teacher pulls out the busts of José Martí, Cuba’s most famous poet and educator, and darling of the classroom, and gives them a fresh coat. Otoniel and I replace the fading José Martí quote under the Cuban flag at the end of the courtyard. We crowd into one of the classrooms for a demonstration of the new light switch. Rolando finishes the gutters and begins to edge the roofing. He is in his bare feet on the roof. When he comes down, Otoniel tends to his pants with a rag dipped in gasoline. He has gotten a long streak of red on his one pair of jeans. Hold out your arms, Otoniel tells me, and he scrubs me down, stinging, with the rag.
We have painted the entire school, the classrooms, the courtyard, the doors, the trim, the front entrance. The courtyard, at midday, is blinding. By pure coincidence, we have finished in time for the school’s end-of-the-year party, and the courtyard fills up with children and their parents, who look at us with a mixture of pride and bewilderment as the children perform loud, enthusiastic dances in front of doors still wet with paint. We are feted as the heroes of the project, an unfair accolade.
Along with the peso, work has been devalued in Cuba–we see scores of healthy young men lounging on corners wherever we go. For less than a dollar a day in wages, in the new economic climate, much work isn’t worth it. Our bus drivers worked like men possessed. Rolando only came down the ladder, reluctantly, when the can of paint was dry. Everyone worked hard, for nothing, and as much as they were helping us take care of the job, I see they might also have been taking care of themselves, and of their country.
What amazes me about Cuba is its long patience. Not one person we meet speaks bitterly about the times when it has been unrelentingly hard. In a country plastered with images of Che Guevara, the sweetheart of the revolution, dead some 20 years, there is among the population a distinct unwillingness to be martyred. I look for what might be the secret, how people go through the routines of regular living; stubborn, persistent, amused, earnest. Early in the morning, I watch a man pull up on a motorbike, a woman perched in front of him. When she gets off, I see she is very pregnant. She is laughing and trying to leave, and he is holding her arm and smiling at her. He kisses her six or seven times, short, rapid-fire kisses on the cheek, and looks at her. He kisses her again.
I am taking a walk with one of our hosts from the church, late in the evening on our last day, when we meet a friend of his in the street. We exchange greetings. The friend shakes my hand gravely. He is walking home from work, he explains. He wears a name tag from one of the new dollar stores. Would he like to walk with us? He would. We make a slow, leisurely progress up the quiet street. West Side Story is showing on the island’s one television station, and the songs flicker out of living rooms up and down the block. A man on the sidewalk passes us, carrying a white plastic bag. He is selling rolls on the black market. Women in house dresses come to their doors and talk with him in low tones as we stroll past. The two men I am with make gracious conversation with each other in quiet, easy voices. They talk about the weather. They talk about their children.